Complete and utter jubilation. Tears of joy. Pure adrenaline. Ecstasy.
That’s how former and current members of the 2009 Real Salt Lake championship team described feeling the moment they won the MLS Cup that year. Feelings of satisfaction and validation. Feelings of redemption after a turbulent season that prompted internal questions among the team.
“A lot of it was kind of a confirmation that we’ve been buying into something and it works,” captain Kyle Beckerman said.
A good portion of RSL’s title team has returned to Utah this week to commemorate its championship. Following a reunion dinner Tuesday night in Park City, the MLS Cup winners will be honored before Wednesday’s RSL game against the L.A. Galaxy at Rio Tinto Stadium.
The 2009 title was the culmination of a season that saw RSL perform abysmally on the road, struggle adapting to its style of play, and come to grips with high expectations after a successful but ultimately disappointing 2008 season. At times throughout that year, the team’s struggles caused former coach Jason Kreis to ponder significant changes.
“I do know there were moments of feeling like maybe we haven’t got this right,” Kreis told The Salt Lake Tribune. “That maybe we need to be making more changes. Maybe we need to turn things a little bit of a different way. Maybe we need to turn away from the system.”
But RSL stayed the course. The players figured it out. But it wasn’t until they fell backward into the playoffs that they started to realize their full potential.
“We were a good team,” Kreis said. “But we didn’t really understand that until the end of the season.”
RUN TO THE TITLE
• Finished regular season with a losing record (11-12-7)
• Competed in Eastern Conference during playoffs due to MLS’s uneven number of teams
• Beat Columbus Crew 4-2 in aggregate scoring in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
• Beat Chicago Fire on the road 5-4 in penalty shootout (0-0 tie in regulation) in the Eastern Conference finals.
• Beat L.A. Galaxy 5-4 in penalty shootout in Seattle (1-1 in regulation) to win the MLS Cup
To win the title in 2009, RSL had to knock off the defending-champion Columbus Crew in aggregate scoring, beat the Chicago Fire in a penalty shootout on the road, then win in penalties again against the L.A. Galaxy in the Cup final in Seattle. At the time, Real was relegated to the Eastern Conference for the playoffs. And that was after Real ended the season with a losing 11-12-7 record.
Tony Beltran, who recently announced his retirement, recalled standing next to Kreis during the penalty shots in Chicago. When the same situation presented itself against the Galaxy at Century Link Stadium, Beltran and Kreis, two somewhat superstitious individuals, found each other on the sidelines, standing and waiting.
Kreis was on pins and needles. Powerless. Hoping that the weeks of preparation and the team’s current run of form would translate into a victory.
“I don’t think there’s anything quite as painful in life as there is to be a head coach in soccer during matches because you almost have zero control of what’s going on,” Kreis said.
But Beckerman felt confident, especially after RSL beat Columbus and Chicago on the road, and after the team already needed penalties to win once before.
“There wasn’t a question in my mind we were going to win,” Beckerman said. “Before the game, about a week leading up, I knew it was ours.”
Then Robbie Russell buried the Shot Heard ‘Round Utah and his teammates rushed him on the field. Beltran told The Tribune that he remembers vividly Russell saying — half-laughing and half-serious — “I can’t breathe, get off me,” from somewhere in the pile. Beckerman said he cried because he had been waiting 10 years to win a championship.
Nat Borchers, one of RSL’s anchors on the back line that season, remembers that 2009 team as not having any superstar players. But that, coupled with Utah’s small market, was actually what made the team so special, he said.
“There was this belief that we were greater than the sum of our parts,” Borchers told The Tribune. “We all believed in that philosophy that the team is the star.”
Javier Morales, who will be honored at halftime of Wednesday’s game when his number and above a stadium tunnel are unveiled, remembered the jittery end of the regular season, when the team had booked flights home because a handful of other results from around MLS had to go RSL’s way just to make the playoffs. But once they did, Beckerman addressed the team and sent the message that regardless of what happened, everyone was on a level playing field now that the postseason had arrived.
“We’re in it. We might as well go win this thing,” Beltran recalled Beckemran saying.
And win it they did. What followed was a victory parade in Salt Lake City and trips to the governor’s mansion, the capitol and ultimately the White House, where the team was honored by President Barack Obama.
The championship also put RSL on the map across the state. It was Utah’s first title in professional sports since the 1971 Utah Stars in the American Basketball Association. There has not been a pro sports title here since RSL’s championship in 2009.
“Without that championship,” Beltran said, “I mean, I think RSL would be fine, but it would not be the same.”
RSL VS L.A. GALAXY
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy, Utah
Kickoff » Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Last meeting » L.A. 2, RSL 1 (April 28)
Records » RSL 14-12-5 (47 points, fifth in West), L.A. 15-13-3 (48 points, fourth in West)
About L.A. » Run of form is 2-2-2 in last six games. … Zlatan Ibrahimovic has 27 goals in 26 games, second in MLS. … Won back-to-back games for the first time since May. … Galaxy have missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. ... Ibrahimovic recently described himself as “the MVP of MVPs.”
About RSL » Moves back into fourth with a win over the Galaxy. … Douglas Martinez (hamstring) and Luke Mulholland (hamstring) are questionable to play. … Team expects to have its strongest lineup available after resting many of them against Minnesota. … Organization will honor Javier Morales’ name and number in ceremony at halftime.